SALT LAKE CITY — A sign of a good basketball season is when your worst moment features an opponent banking in an awkward, improbable game-winner as the clock expires … and you simply shrug it off.
That’s what the Utes did. They took something painful and put it in the “fluke-occurrence” file.
“I’ve lost every way you can lose,” Utah basketball coach Lynne Roberts said this week, “and that’s the worst way.”
Though the Utes dropped that Jan. 4 heartbreaker to Arizona State, it’s been smooth sailing both before and since. They picked up where they left off, taking out their next three opponents, two by lopsided scores. That moved them to 15-1 on the season, 4-1 in the Pac-12.
“I’m confident that we’re heading in the right direction and we’re going to get there,” Roberts said. “I say that with humility.”
Nothing like a solid gut-punch to keep things on the down-low.
Friday, the Utes host Colorado, winless in five Pac-12 games. They’ll do it without starting wing Daneesha Provo (yes, Provo), who learned after the ASU game she had a torn ACL. Still, the Utes should win this week. They prevailed 76-61 at Boulder in December. But soon after that comes the gauntlet: No. 6-ranked Stanford, No. 5 Oregon and No. 10 Oregon State. By then the Utes will have a good idea whether they’ll reach the NCAA Tournament in Roberts’ fourth season at Utah.
“We haven’t talked one time about the postseason,” she said. “Not one time.”
There’s a good reason for that: They’re enjoying the regular season too much.
Last year, the Utes surged to a 10-2 non-conference record but struggled to an 8-10 Pac-12 mark. Roberts says last year’s seniors can’t be faulted for much except wanting to make the NCAA Tournament too badly. It was constantly on their minds, which interfered with their day-to-day business.
That’s the trick in almost all sports: keeping your eye on the prize, but living in the moment. Last year’s team was obsessed with the former, and it took a toll. The 2019 Utes aren’t so inclined, says Roberts.
“I don’t sense there’s this pressure,” she said.
Pressure is something Roberts herself has learned to address. She followed Anthony Levrets, who followed Elaine Elliott, who coached the Utes to 15 NCAA Tournament appearances. Elliott won like Rick Majerus, minus the gag lines. She had 19 20-win seasons and put players in the WNBA.
Roberts is anything but resentful of Elliott’s legacy; she embraces it. Recruiting videos reference the Utes’ postseason legacy and what they did before joining the Pac-12.
“I think it’s a compliment,” Roberts said. “In recruiting we use Elaine’s success all the time. When you look at what Utah has done … we just haven’t done it in the Pac-12.”
This year she is operating without any local players. That’s not by design; it’s by circumstance. The state of Utah has good depth in boys basketball and football, but many of the best female athletes prefer volleyball. This year’s Ute basketball team includes five Canadians — a tradition established by Elliott — plus three Californians and one each from Spain, South Dakota, Washington, Nevada and Poland.
Everything except Utahns.
Still, it’s working. The team is 27th in this week’s AP polling, just outside the rankings. A win over Colorado would likely move them into the top 25.Comment on this story
Roberts, whose contract was extended through 2023 last spring, isn’t worrying about polls. She just wants her team to ride the wave.
“When you’re constantly thinking about the end game, the end goal, you’re kind of missing out on the joy of the present tense,” she said. “This group, on their own … they just kind of bought into that, which is what makes them special.”
They took a gut-punch, but so far it hasn’t fazed them. As the Black Knight said in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”: “Just a flesh wound … ’tis but a scratch.”
Humbly spoken, of course.